In historic milestone for Amazon and organized labor, workers at N.Y. warehouse vote to unionize

An Amazon fulfillment center. (GeekWire File Photo)

For the first time in Amazon’s history, a group of the company’s U.S. warehouse workers voted to form a union, delivering a landmark victory for the labor movement and a setback for the tech giant after years of successfully resisting organized labor in its domestic operations.

In results issued Friday morning, employees at an Amazon warehouse facility in Staten Island, N.Y., voted 2,654 to 2,131 to join the Amazon Labor Union, an organization led by a former employee who was fired after leading a walkout over COVID-19 work conditions at the facility.

The final ballots were counted by the National Labor Relations Board regional office in Brooklyn, which said 8,325 workers were eligible to vote. There were 4,852 ballots counted and only 67 of those ballots were challenged. There were 17 void ballots.

“Challenges are not sufficient in number to affect the results of the election,” an NLRB official said during the tally reading.

The results of the count will not be certified until the NLRB processes any objections the parties may file. They have until April 8.

“We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” Amazon said in a statement. “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”

The results in New York follow Thursday’s outcome in Alabama, where workers at a fulfillment warehouse in Bessemer voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) by a margin of 993 to 875. But the outcome is not certain, as 416 ballots were challenged, and because that number is large enough to impact the result, the NLRB will hold a hearing to decide if any of the challenged ballots should be opened and counted.

“Every vote must be counted,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said Thursday.

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Unionization was struck down by a wide margin last April in Bessemer, at the warehouse facility known as BHM1, but a second election was held after the NLRB ruled that Amazon stepped outside allowable guidelines and improperly pressured workers against unionizing the warehouse.

Christian Smalls, ALU president. (ALU Photo)

In New York, the union effort is led by Christian Smalls, a warehouse manager who was fired in March 2020 after organizing a walkout over work conditions at the Staten Island facility known as JFK8.

“In my 25 years writing about labor, the unionization victory at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island is by far the biggest, beating-the-odds David versus Goliath unionization win I’ve seen,” tweeted Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times labor reporter.

CNBC also called ALU an “unlikely contender” to win the first unionized Amazon warehouse. The worker-led organization has depended on crowdsourced donations from a GoFundMe account to fund organizing activities.

Amazon’s PR strategy against Smalls, in which he was referred to as “not smart or articulate” in a leaked memo, only emboldened the union drive. 

“They said they’d make me the whole face of the union effort against Amazon,” Smalls told the Guardian newspaper last year. “I’m trying to make them eat their words.”

Small reiterated that call in a tweet on Friday directed at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and General Counsel David Zapolsky.

Among other things, Staten Island workers are now seeking longer breaks, paid time off for injured employees and an hourly wage of $30, up from a minimum of just over $18 per hour offered by the company, The Associated Press reported.

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An Amazon fulfillment center. (GeekWire File Photo)

Amazon, which employs 1.1 million people in the U.S., has fought hard against the union momentum. The company has held mandatory meetings and launched an anti-union website, among other tactics. CNBC reported that Amazon hired an influential Democratic polling firm.

Margaret O’Mara, a historian, author and University of Washington professor who specializes in the history of tech and politics, told GeekWire that Amazon has sought to reduce turnover, increase efficiency, and head off union drives by raising pay and increasing benefits.

“But Staten Island shows that paying $18/hour may not be enough to compensate for a workplace built for efficiency and speedy delivery to customers, at the cost of some workers’ health and security,” O’Mara said.

‘A lot of employees who have been asked to work under unreasonable conditions for the last two years are talking to each other about organizing, and feeling like unionizing is possible.’

Charlotte Garden, an associate professor at the Seattle University School of Law who is an expert in labor and employment law, told GeekWire that once the NLRB certifies the union’s win in Staten Island, the next step is bargaining.

“Amazon’s legal obligation is to come to the table and bargain in good faith — but the penalties for companies that fail to meet their obligations are extremely weak, and Amazon will be motivated to draw things out as much as possible,” Garden said.

Achieving a contract will likely come down to the workers’ own ability to exert their collective power, Garden said, and while she believes Amazon characterizes itself as a “progressive, high-road employer,” if the company refuses to genuinely work toward a contract, it would highlight how Amazon “fails to live up to that ideal.”

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The outcome could have an impact across the tech industry and other workplaces that have avoided unionization.

“I think a lot of non-union companies are probably looking at Starbucks and Amazon and wondering if their employees are going to be the next to unionize,” Garden said. “And a lot of employees who have been asked to work under unreasonable conditions for the last two years are talking to each other about organizing, and feeling like unionizing is possible.”

This a developing story. Check back for updates.

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